Lesson for Hong Kong’s politicians: this is how you do a hunger strike

Yonden Lhatoo looks at the end of a remarkable woman’s 16-year hunger strike in India and contrasts that with local politicians’ feeble attempts at fasting

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 6:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 6:28pm

A piece of news this week that didn’t get much media attention or resonate in this part of the world was the end of a 16-year hunger strike by Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila.

Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, starting with her hometown, the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, a basket case of poverty, corruption and separatist violence.

Since the 1980s, dozens of heavily armed militant outfits fighting for causes ranging from independence and ethnic interests to extortion and plain old thuggery have been battling the might of the central government.

Shocking human rights abuses are common in this morass as the national army, paramilitary forces and state police try to wipe out rebels who strike at will and blend into the civilian population.

Sharmila’s non-violent struggle began in November 2000 when the slaughter of 10 young villagers by members of a paramilitary unit prompted her to protest against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which essentially gives men in uniform the power to arrest, torture and even kill with impunity, in the name of national security.

While state-sanctioned murder may not necessarily be illegal under such circumstances in the world’s biggest democracy, suicide is, so when the activist stopped eating and drinking, she was promptly arrested. Thanks to Indian law allowing for a maximum one year of incarceration for attempted suicide, it became a ritual for her to be force-fed in custody, have a court free her at the end of every 12 months, promptly restart her hunger strike, and be arrested all over again.

So she has spent most of her life since 2000 in a hospital room, with armed guards in attendance and a team of doctors and nurses forcibly pumping a sludgy cocktail of food and medicine through a pipe up her nose two to three times a day.

This week, she finally gave up the world’s longest fast. “I have not got anything from it yet,” she said, indicating that she might try something else – like politics.

We have hunger strikes here in Hong Kong too, but, by contrast, they’re feeble publicity attempts by veteran and budding politicians who are prone to separation anxiety when they’re kept away from food for too long.

Our so-called hunger strikes can be farcical exercises in futility, with the concept of marathon fasting morphing conveniently into a relay system, in which participants working in shifts pass on the starving baton to reinforcements while they take a break to tank up.

Remember student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s “indefinite hunger strike” during the Occupy protests of 2014? It lasted all of four days, and he gave up citing “strong doctor’s advice” and “extreme physical discomfort”. Government officials sat it out, smug in the knowledge that it would never get to the stage where they would be forced to the negotiating table.

Democratic Party heavyweight Albert Ho Chun-yan, no pun intended, also staged an “indefinite hunger strike” for universal suffrage in 2014. It lasted all of 100 hours as a bout of “diarrhoea” combined with a “mild headache” prompted him to throw in the towel and pick up a plate.

This is not an attack on the heroes of the pan-democratic camp. At least they try to go hungry in the name of democracy on occasion. Their pro-establishment rivals should try it, too – for health reasons if not for politics. The amount of fasting involved in the cases of Wong and Ho was probably good for them in terms of detoxification.

My Muslim friends do it all the time as part of their faith. They tell me it rejuvenates your body and helps you think clearly.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post